Sampling Albania’s riviera

With the anticipated arrival of friends and family for our Albanian wedding in June, we took a couple of days last week to travel south to the coast to find the best location for a beach holiday planned for after the wedding.

Albania’s riviera extends south from Vlore to Saranda and provides miles of gorgeous coastline bordered by stunning mountain ranges.

We spent our first night in Vlore – about 2.5 hours’ drive from Tirana with some blissful stretches of pot-hole free motorway. Vlore is a typical seaside town – dead in the winter and frantic in the summer.

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Vlore

There used to be a huge number of restaurants and bars lining the beach but a government decision to crack down on illegal building development resulted in long stretches of the beachfront reduced to piles of rubble after the army was sent in late last year to bulldoze any building without the proper permits.

While I agree with the efforts to improve control over the development of the coastline, leaving piles of rubble everywhere means many parts of the beach are now ugly and useless.

The beaches south of Vlore are much nicer, less polluted and with fewer piles of rubble but unless you’re staying at one of the hotels, it’s very difficult to find a patch of beach on which to stretch out your towel.

The road turns inland at Orikumi and heads through the Llogaraja Pass and the spectacular Çika mountains.

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It was proper scary driving – all hairpin turns and sheer cliffs. (The road features on Top Gear’s Albanian episode if you’re interested!) I crawled down the road in second gear at snail’s pace of 20 km per hour. I can’t imagine what it would have been like driving on that road before it was improved – or during rain and snow. Mercifully, like many roads outside the main cities, there is very little traffic!

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Looking down towards the beach at Dhermiu

We spent the second night in Dhërmiu – the first beach you hit once you come off the mountain road. Unlike the little bays along the coastline from Vlore to Orikumi, the beach at Dhërmiu stretches out. It looked so enticing from the top of the mountains and from the village itself set high above the beach. But the army also visited Dhërmiu last year and again there were piles of rubble all along the beachfront.

I hope I’m not painting too negative a picture here… I mean, even unplanned, thoughtless human intervention is not able to ruin the jaw-dropping scenery. The beaches are gorgeous with their sparkling clean water and rocky beaches. There are terraces of olive trees and goats and cows wandering along the road and of course, the stunning mountains.

We had a great couple of days enjoying the landscapes, fantastic weather and delicious seafood. Really looking forward to coming back in the summer with our friends and family!

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Making fergese

Time for another foray into Albanian cuisine!

Fergese (fried curd) turns up on the dinner table in all sorts of guises. My favourite is made with carrots, red peppers, garlic and olives mulched up in the food processor, mixed into the gjize (pronounced ‘geeze’) and fried. I’ve even had it at a restaurant with chunks of chicken in it. I don’t have a food processor so we’re sticking to a simple version which was shown to me by my brother-in-law Berti.

Ingredients:

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  • Gjize (curd or cottage cheese)
  • Speca (peppers – red & green)
  • Hudhra (fresh garlic)
  • Gjalp (butter)
  • Qumesht (milk)
  • Vaj (oil)

Slice and dice the speca and hudhra and soften up in a frying pan with a big chunk of gjalp.

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Add the gjize to the frying pan. Use only what you’ll think you’ll eat straight away because its best served fresh from the pan. We probably used a quarter of the amount of gjize shown in the photo above.

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Continue to fry the mixture. Add a dollop of milk and some vaj. Fry a little longer and then its good to go. Totally yum with chunks of fresh bread! Hubby said my fergese was really good – so that’s a total Albanian housewife win! Woo hoo!

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Krujë: antiques and national heroes

Now that we’ve got a car we can go and explore Albania so on Saturday we headed out of Tirana to Krujë – about an hour’s drive from the capital. Krujë is most famous for its castle, the centre of the Albanian resistance to the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. It was led by Albania’s most famous hero, Skanderberg, so the castle is more commonly referred to as Skanderberg’s castle. (People still adorn the walls of their homes with paintings of this bloke!)

This was the first place I’ve been to in Albania that was clearly geared up for the tourist trade. The bazaar was filled with the usual tourist tat, along with lovely antiques. The local traders have clocked that rich tourists fancy taking home an authentic Albanian bucket and have stocked their stalls accordingly. I was in antique heaven. So many things I wanted to buy so that I could start furnishing our apartment with old bits of farming equipment. Hubby just laughed at me. Apparently I’m better off going around the village near the family farm and buying things off the locals at a fraction of the price.

Strolling through the bazaar
Strolling through the bazaar

Inside the walls of the castle (entrance fee: 100 lek/59p) is a museum tracking the battles to defend Albania from the Ottomans, something Skanderberg was excellent at doing. Unfortunately there was no one to step into his place after his death and as a result, Albania became part of the Ottoman empire for 400 years, only gaining its independence in 1912.

Skanderberg's castle
Skanderberg’s castle

We really enjoyed the smaller ethnographic museum, also inside the castle. It is sited in a traditional Albanian house and its displays show how life was lived 100 years’ ago.

Both museums have a 300 lek (£1.76) entrance fee. We couldn’t figure out if it was because I’m foreign or hubby is Albanian, but we were only charged for one person at each museum. Result!

Krujë and its castle are situated on the mountain – it’s a steep and windy drive up to the top (although the road was in very good condition) – so the most impressive thing in Krujë is the view down across the plains and all the way out to sea. Stunning.

View from the castle
View from the castle

We made the mistake (again) of forgetting that we run on cash only in Albania and forgetting to top up our wallets before we left home. So we were on a bit of a budget for the day which is probably the only thing that saved us from arriving home with an old window frame, a wooden bucket and copper jug – much to hubby’s relief!

A whole month

This week it’s a whole month since I said goodbye to London and lugged four suitcases and a wedding dress to the airport for the short flight to Tirana. A whole month. It feels like a lifetime ago!

There have been some achievements for us so far. The most recent being the purchase of a car. This was a priority for us – we’re so keen to hit the road and explore this incredibly beautiful country. But I am nervous about adjusting to driving in Albania. It’s chaos out there! The roads, while vastly improved even in the three years since I was last here, are still really bad in parts. The road down from our apartment just turns to a river in the rain and the potholes are brutal. If it isn’t the potholes, then it’s the random holes in the road where drain covers have been stolen for scrap. Locals have described their driving style as ‘aggressive’. Road rules are irrelevant and pedestrians will cross the road whenever and wherever takes their fancy without a glance for traffic. Wish me luck!!

Testing the car on Tirana's roads
Testing the car on Tirana’s roads

We are settled into our lovely, albeit scantily furnished, apartment and feel at home in our neighbourhood. I love the proximity to the mountains, that we can walk 15 minutes up the road and be in the countryside. A 30 minute bus ride and we’re in the centre of Tirana.

Hoxha'a Pyramid in central Tirana
Hoxha’s Pyramid in central Tirana

I’ve found myself some volunteer work with a NGO working on civil society projects. It’s keeping my brain going and has meant I’ve met some pretty interesting people. I’ve also found myself connected to Tirana’s diplomatic WAGS and am looking forward to developing some new friendships.

There were days in the beginning when tears were shed – when coping with everything in daily life being new or different was just too much. But I love not having to get up every week day morning and go to work! I love that hubby and I are getting to have this adventure together – it is a luxury to have time with each other that doesn’t consist of us being too tired to talk and just falling asleep on the sofa. I love being a part of a big Albanian family! The hospitality and generosity are phenomenal. Everyone has been so welcoming and it makes me feel safe here.

We’re now just three months out from our Albanian wedding in June (I can’t believe I’m back in wedding planning mode just five short months after our London wedding!) and we are looking forward to hosting friends and family from overseas. And the best time to be in Albania is fast approaching – spring!